Excluding a father from the birth process harms his bonding with mother and baby argues Dr Andrew Mayers, a Bournemouth University (BU) expert on perinatal mental health. This has a negative impact on the developing mental health of that infant and puts both parents’ mental health at risk too.
Over the past few weeks during the coronavirus Covid-19 crisis there have been a number of reports of hospitals banning fathers or partners of pregnant women from the birth. There is no doubt that these decisions are taken seriously and made with the best of intentions by hospitals focused on reducing the spread of the virus. Indeed, statements from some of the hospitals have referenced how difficult this is for the mother. But the latest research by Dr Mayers shows that excluding fathers from the birth process can cause harm to the father’s mental health, as well as to the mother and baby.
That new research was recently published in BMC Pregnancy and Childbirth. It was co-written by Dr Mayers alongside BU colleague Dr Emily Arden-Close and Emily Daniels, a former BU undergraduate and postgraduate student, upon whose project work this study was based.
Dr Mayers said: “Research has shown that men can experience depression after the birth of a child much as women can suffer from postnatal depression. There are risk factors for depression that can accompany a new baby - like a reduction in income and a changed relationship that put fathers at risk of depression. Our evidence shows that witnessing a traumatic birth is also a significant risk factor and increases the likelihood that men will experience poor mental health”.
“One element that fathers consistently mention when interviewed about their partner’s traumatic birth is being excluded from the birth process. This can be because the mother needs to go into surgery or simply because healthcare professionals can sometimes provide little support to the father during pregnancy or birth. Fathers report that not feeling like part of the process has a damaging effect on their mental health. Our research shows that being excluded can make it difficult for fathers to bond with the baby and mother post birth.”
Dr Mayers has two research studies, focusing on fathers, currently under review for publication. Both of these confirm that that fathers often feel excluded from the pregnancy and birthing process by health professionals. A few decades ago, fathers rarely engaged in this period and very few would be present at the birth. These days, around 98% of fathers attend the birth of their child, and yet recognition of their role by health professionals is still perceived to be lacking. This poor recognition is one of the factors becoming apparent in two aspects of fathers and mental health during the perinatal period: the extent to which fathers are able to support their partner should she develop a mental health problem at this time; and how fathers might develop mental health problems themselves.
Poor perinatal mental health and depression in fathers is distressing and can have tragic outcomes. Fathers with symptoms of postnatal depression are around 47 times more likely to be a suicide risk than at any other time. There is also mounting evidence to show that a father’s depression, like a mother’s, can have a damaging effect on the child – putting the child at risk of behavioural, emotional and developmental issues. It can also harm the relationship between the parents and leave the mother without the support she needs.
Dr Mayers said: “There is a lack of awareness among healthcare professionals of fathers’ perinatal mental health which can mean that fathers often have a hard time accessing support when they do experience difficulties. Fathers can be left to suffer in silence. Healthcare professionals need training to understand the roles of fathers and to make them part of the pregnancy and birth process.”
Dr Mayers concluded: “Excluding fathers from the birth experience to limit the spread of the virus could have damaging long term consequences to the health and wellbeing of the whole family. Healthcare professionals need to carefully consider whether the risks to families are worth it.”
The latest research from the Bournemouth University team, entitled “Be quiet and man up: a qualitative questionnaire study into fathers who witnessed their Partner’s birth trauma”, was officially published on April 24th 2020 in BMC Pregnancy and Childbirth. It is freely accessible at https://rdcu.be/b3I7R.